By Charlie Pogacar

Just six short months after opening a first location, Pizza Baby, in Charlotte, North Carolina, added a second shop. There are more stores on the way, too, and ownership is determined to make each location unique—from the style of pizza each one specializes in to the service format itself.

It’s fun, then, to consider that Pizza Baby started with a chance encounter. 

Steven De Falco had just relocated to Charlotte when he almost physically bumped into a man wearing a “Flour Shop” shirt. De Falco had recently stepped down as co-owner and operator of Sullivan Street Bakery in Miami, Florida, prior to relocating to the Queen City. His love for baking and endless curiosity got the better of him: De Falco started chatting with the man. 

Related: A Food Critic Panned a Pizzeria. The Community Reacted.

The stranger turned out to be Trey Wilson, a well-known chef and culinary mind in the Queen City area. Wilson opened, owned and operated Customshop, a beloved Charlotte institution, for over a decade. Later, he launched Flour Shop, a handmade pasta kitchen. 

“We geeked out together,” De Falco said of the duo’s first interaction. “Our cell phones came out. I’m saying, ‘Look what we did at Sullivan Street,’ and he’s showing me the pandemic pizzas he was making out of Flour Shop. From there, we started going on a lot of coffee dates, and we pretty much fell into a deep professional love.” 

That professional love led to the formation of Art & Commerce Food Group, co-owned by De Falco and Wilson. Art & Commerce Food Group is now the parent company of Flour Shop as well as the owner of the two neighborhood pizzerias, Pizza Baby West and Pizza Baby East

Pizza Baby West—then just “Pizza Baby”—opened in the Wesley Heights neighborhood of Charlotte in August 2023. The shop offers a New York-inspired style of pizza that the shop owners lovingly refer to as “Americana-style.” Pizza Baby West offers 12” and 18” pies, salads, starters and artisan breads. It’s a full-service restaurant with a well-curated selection of wines. The dough at Pizza Baby West was inspired by Flour Shop’s highly coveted sourdough but underwent nearly 30 different trial iterations after De Falco and Wilson studied with pizzaioli on Long Island.

De Falco’s professional background includes his experience at Sullivan Street Bakery, but his love affair with dough goes back much further than that. Born on Staten Island, De Falco spent summers in Brooklyn growing up. “I have that taste of New York slices stuck in my mind,” De Falco said. “It’s my childhood.” His father was a home pizza chef, too, who held a subscription to PMQ. That meant De Falco spent some of his childhood thumbing through the print magazine, furthering his passion for the food.

De Falco considers Wilson the “most essential chef in Charlotte.” Admittedly, this is a biased opinion, but Wilson’s track record speaks for itself. He developed Customshop alongside other award-winning chefs, including David Pasternack, and kept it thriving through plenty of adversity, including construction of Charlotte’s light rail practically on the restaurant’s doorstep. When the pandemic hit, like so many chefs across the country, Wilson began serving pizza out of Flour Shop.

Though Wilson offloaded his stake in Customshop when Art & Commerce Food Group was formed, the restaurant is still running under new ownership—and, not coincidentally, is located right next to the space Pizza Baby East now inhabits. 

When Pizza Baby East opened in the Elizabeth neighborhood of Charlotte in March 2024, it marked the beginning of a new chapter for Pizza Baby in more ways than one. The newer restaurant serves up Roman-style pies, or “Pizza alla Palla,” during mornings and afternoons in a cafe setting. During the evening, Pizza Baby East pivots to a full-service model and serves that Americana-style pizza—but a 12”-only version—alongside a well-rounded selection of beverages. 

How did two pizzerias with largely the same name, owned by the same people, come to serve entirely different styles of pizza? It helps that both De Falco and Wilson have entrepreneurial spirits: There was no doubt in their minds that they would be opening more than one pizza shop, especially after the first was immediately embraced by its surrounding community. But their plans have always more or less revolved around building up a network of neighborhood restaurants that happen to serve pizza. The vision to make them pizzerias that had their own identity and spirit was a later development. 

“When we took the space [for the second store], we knew we wanted it to be a Pizza Baby, but we also wanted to find its own unique identity,” De Falco said. “Trey’s lightbulb moment was, ‘Oh, we’re not stamp-it-out chain guys. For sure, that’s not us.’ We want to have custom-crafted neighborhood restaurants—for the shop to reflect the neighborhood that it is located in.” 

As they began thinking more about the physical properties of Pizza Baby East—it’s about half the size of Pizza Baby West—it started to evoke the image of a Roman bakery. There’s an alleyway running alongside the store, with room for only some small tables and chairs. 

“So we thought, let’s do a bakery, cafe and wine bar that is open all day that serves espresso and stuff that goes well with espresso, as well as Roman-style pizza for lunch,” De Falco said. “And by night, we offer a full menu with full service and offer crafted cocktails, boutique wines and Italian beers alongside our 12”-only, Americana-style pizza.” 

The shop’s Roman-style offerings are streamlined. Right now, just four pizzas populate the menu: Margherita, Sausage (with mushroom and onion), Pistachio (with burrata, tomato and arugula) and Sicilian. The shop’s deli case is filled out with items like pastries and mortadella. 

This differs from the original location, which offers around 10 pizzas, in addition to a bevy of starters, wines, beer and dessert. Rather than confuse patrons, however, the differing shops give Charlotteans a reason to visit both. 

“People come in and they’re curious about the other location,” De Falco said. “They’ll be a regular at West who comes in for lunch at East for a workday espresso and snack. It works the other way, too, where people have discovered East, and that gets them curious to come out to West and have dinner. It’s led to some beautiful conversations, and we’re really humbled and grateful. But I think the reason it works is because of the unique programming at each store.” 

Another reason Art & Commerce Food Group has been successful is because of the symbiotic relationship between De Falco and Wilson. De Falco is more of the operations guy, while Wilson is the chef. But that doesn’t mean there’s a line in the sand between the two things—quite the opposite. 

“We have a tremendous yin-and-yang partnership,” De Falco said. “We don’t draw any lines and help one another with both sides of the equation, but Trey is very much the chef-creative running product, and I’m more on the operations side.” 

As the food group eyes locations for additional Pizza Baby restaurants in different neighborhoods of Charlotte, it seems a virtual certainty that the Pizza Baby empire will continue to grow. So, too, will the partnership between De Falco and Wilson. And to think—it all started on a chance encounter. 

“We are by nature high energy and excited,” De Falco said. “From a purist perspective of what we do and want to do, it’s to serve the community and be accessible in Charlotte. Especially given the nature of what bread and pizza really are…it’s a food of the people, a food for everyone. It’s meant to be accessible with less pomp and circumstance. That’s what we want to be.” 

Featured, Pizzerias